WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard “really need to get this going” on increasing its presence in the Arctic to ensure U.S. sovereignty does not fall behind those of Russia and China, the new head of the Coast Guard said Wednesday.
Adm. Karl Schultz said the Coast Guard is “globally pressed” in demands even in the face of budget uncertainty and political challenges.
“The reality is the Arctic is on us today,” Schultz said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We need six of them (icebreakers) here, one needing to be a heavy icebreaker. We need it done today. We really need to get this going.”
Schultz became the 26th commandant of the Coast Guard on June 1.
President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal to Congress includes $750 million for a new heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard. However, that money was not included in the Department of Homeland Security budget recently approved by a House committee.
The Coast Guard is part of DHS.
“The appropriations process is a long process. The Senate marked up is version and this (version) still has $750 million in it,” Schultz said. He said because of the contentiousness of DHS activities, meaning dealing with border issues, Congress may decide to wait until after the November elections to act on DHS funding.
A July report on the Coast Guard icebreaking fleet noted the two operational ships — heavy icebreaker Polar Star and medium icebreaker Healy — are well beyond their original service lives. The ships operate in both the Arctic and Antarctica.
According to that report by the Congressional Research Service, the Coast Guard has been able to address only 78 polar icebreaking requests from 2010 through 2016.
“I think there is a strong interest in it (the icebreaker),” Schultz said. “I am going to take the guarded optimistic approach that this thing (the funding legislation) has a lot of ground to cover. We need that ship now.”
Russia has between 40 and 45 icebreakers in the Arctic, is building a nuclear icebreaker and is going back to old bases and reactivating then, Schultz said. China has declared itself a near-Arctic state as it goes deeper into the region.
“It’s about competition,” he said. “The Coast Guard is the most visible presence up there.”
Shultz said ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty by the U.S. would help since its protocols would help octet assets on the continental shelf and elsewhere — even more, critical as melting ice opens access others. “That would clarify things,” he said.